Down on the Bayou: Getting Swamped in Louisiana
by Lisa Alpine
New Orleans (or "N'awlins," as the natives drawl it) is rich territory for the hedonist--spicy, fattening food, late-night jazz and blues, and the ripe, yellow moon shimmering on the Mississippi like a giant billiard ball.
But there's more to the "Crescent City" than music and jambalaya. I've always had bayou fantasies--juju, alligators and Spanish moss--so I took a swamp tour.
About 20 of the New Orleans area is still undeveloped wetlands, and there are many ways to meet the Louisiana Bayou. I chose a three-hour "Cajun Natural History" boat tour with Cypress Swamp Tours, an operator based out of the Cajun fishing village of Weswego (across the Mississippi River Bridge from New Orleans).
Priced at $20, the tour was both inexpensive and convenient. The tour included pickup at my New Orleans hotel, and in less than 30 minutes, I was transported from the hubbub of the French Quarter to the quiet backwaters of the Bayou Segnette.
A small part of the sprawling Barataria-Terrabonne Estuary that covers over 4.1 million acres, the Bayou Segnette shelters over 700 species of wildlife: from shrimp and snapping turtles to bald eagles, Louisiana black bear, and the American alligator.
As each of us boarded the 45-foot skiff we'd use for our journey, we shook hands with Tom Billiot, our tour guide and captain. His shock of black hair and gentle, French patois accent reflected his Cajun heritage. Add in his twinkling, blue eyes and ruddy outdoor looks, and it was no wonder that all the lady passengers were peeking at him as they found places to sit.
Soon we were traveling through the chocolaty brown bayou water. Almost immediately, Captain Tom pointed to a garfish just breaking the water's glassy surface. Awkwardly bony and prehistoric-looking, garfish are sought after for their sweet white meat. Though we were excited by our first "sighting" of the day, Captain Tom was obviously more inspired by his visions of it laid out as dinner that night.
Spinning yarns about life on the bayou and his bayou-trapper forebears, the captain's enthusiasm soon rubbed off on even the most subdued tourist. We hung over the boat whenever Captain Tom pointed to something flying overhead or sleeping on a log.
One quiet backwater cove presented a perfect tableau of cypress knees (roots) crowding the banks, Spanish moss dangling to the water's edge, and a half dozen alligators sunning themselves on the muddy beach. The gators kept one eye on us, remaining perfectly still with jaws gaping open. This was not to intimidate us-alligators dissipate heat through their mouths.
The iridescent blue glint of a kingfisher skimming the water led my eye to a delicate orange spider lily blossom punctuating the green vegetation. A massive blue heron winged across the water, alerting us to his presence with a croaking honk. Snapping turtles slid off logs, roots and branches when we passed, sinking quickly out of sight.
Although 14 of the state's population lives in this area, the only signs of human habitation were weathered shacks draped with fishing nets, gator trap lines hung over the water, and an occasional oil and gas well sunk into the swamp.
Due to continued leveeing of the Mississippi River, 21 square miles of wetlands vanish every year, we were told. Cypress Swamp Tours' owner, Tom Quenan, hopes his programs will help people preserve the Barataria-Terrebonne Estuary. "We have the unique opportunity to tell the story of how the estuary used to be, what has changed and what needs to be done to protect it," Quenan said.
Captain Tom shared his knowledge about his beloved swamp, pulled up nets to show us blue crabs, and poked sticks at the openings of gator dens. To further entice the reptiles, he tossed marshmallows into the water. American alligators, the only kind in Louisiana, love marshmallows, and they quickly swam right up to the side of the boat to devour them. The larger, more dignified gators (8 to 12 feet long) continued to bask on fallen logs, but the smaller critters (2 to 3 feet long) who chased the confections were cute--and plentiful.
Captain Tom's vignettes were peppered with cooking recipes using the bayou ingredients. A patch of blackberries at water's edge inspired a recitation for blackberry dumplings, and he encouraged us to reach out and pick a handful to eat right then. They were ripe and juicy.
Captain Tom also told us about Cajun history. Descendants of French colonists who settled in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, the Cajuns were expelled by the British in the 18th century. Soon, they moved to the Louisiana swamps, earning their living as hunters, fishermen, boat builders, farmers, and horse breeders. Lacking formal education, they lived close to the land, intermarried, and retained their customs, religion and provincial form of the French language.
Today, nearly one million people of Cajun or mixed Cajun blood live in Louisiana. Their pungent food and boisterous music reflect the Cajun philosophy of "Laissez les bons temps rouler" (Let the good times roll).
Encouraging us to taste the culinary Cajun bounty, Captain Tom enthusiastically advised us to eat the "good fixins"--the extras cooked in the crawfish boil: elephant garlic, potatoes, and celery (but watch out, because it absorbs the hot peppers). As we pulled up to the dock, he exclaimed, "Bring it on!" This meant that it was dinner time. Tom's kids were there, diving off the moored fishing boats, waiting for him to show them what he had pulled out of the nets.
Always a gentleman, Captain Tom helped each of us off the boat with a farewell handshake. I was back on the bus heading for New Orleans before I realized I forgot to ask him for his alligator meatball spaghetti recipe.
For more information, contact Cypress Swamp Tours, 501 Laroussini St., Westwego, LA 70094. Phone: (800) 633-0503; Website: www.cypresswamp.com
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see the Geographical Index under "Louisiana."